Shetland Sheepdog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Shetland Sheepdog

The Shetland Sheepdog, or “Sheltie”, as it is commonly known, is a graceful and elegant breed, with somewhat muddled origins on the eponymous isles. Like its compatriot, the Shetland pony, it has developed in miniature, being almost a scale replica of the unrelated Rough Collie.

The Sheltie’s beautiful ruffed coat is another adaptation to the harsh environment of its homeland, and it requires considerable effort to maintain it in show condition. Shelties are highly intelligent, and excel at agility and other competitive activities, which provide the stimulation and challenge the breed needs so as not to become bored and frustrated.

They have a gentle and loving personality, although they can be reserved toward strangers. Breeding Shetland Sheepdogs is no simple affair, as the merle colour genes that run through the bloodline can predispose to certain inherited conditions – notably blindness and deafness. Anyone thinking of buying a Sheltie puppy should research the breeder carefully, and pups should all be examined and certified by a specialist veterinary ophthalmologist at a minimum. Despite the prevalence of inherited disorders, most Shelties are resilient and healthy little dogs, with an average life expectancy of 12–13 years.

About & History

Indigenous sheepdogs have helped the farmers of the Shetland isles to herd and protect their flocks for at least 200 years. However, the modern Shetland Sheepdog appears to be quite far removed from the earliest dogs, though the crossings and selections involved in its creation remain shrouded in the mists of time until around the early twentieth century. Given the explosion in urban populations since the Industrial Revolution, Shetland seems a remote and isolated region, to our modern way of thinking. This was not always the case, and seafaring travellers from Iceland and Scandinavia would frequently use the islands as a stopping-off point on their journeys.

What breed history does exist suggests that the Icelandic Sheepdog formed part of the parent stock on which the modern Sheltie was built, which seems plausible, as the two breeds share many physical traits. In contrast to the Sheltie, the Icelandic Sheepdog has a Spitz-like tail, and some breed historians suggest a contribution by Spitzes to the Sheltie’s ancestry; however, the characteristic curled tail has disappeared in the modern breed. Other theories as to the breed’s origin abound: many believe, without any firm evidence, that the King Charles Spaniel (not the Cavalier) was also involved at some point.

An important step in the crafting of today’s sheepdog was the crossing of the Shetland dogs with Border Collies, a step taken by James Loggie of Lerwick in the early twentieth century as part of a concerted effort to standardise the breed. The Shetland Collie, as it was then known, was registered by the Kennel Club in 1909. The result of this programme was an immediate increase in interest in the breed, with exportation to the United States quickly leading to American Kennel Club recognition in 1911.

Following a period of intense petitioning by the Rough Collie breed association, the Shetland Collie, as it had heretofore been known, was renamed the Shetland Sheepdog in 1914 to avoid confusing the two breeds, who, despite marked similarities in appearance, do not share a common background. The Sheltie has always been a hugely popular pet, and it ranks highly in terms of number of registered puppies each year in both the UK and US Kennel Club records. Ironically, very few Shelties are now to be found on the Shetland isles, where they have almost entirely been displaced by Border Collies on the small farms of the region.


Shetland Sheepdog Large Photo

Above all, the Shetland Sheepdog is elegant and graceful in its appearance and movements. This small dog retains the proportions of larger working breeds of sheepdog, without any exaggeration of a particular physical characteristic. The head is a long wedge shape in profile, with the muzzle approximately the same length as the crown. The muzzle is rounded, and the dog’s cheekbones are noticeably flat, lending the face a refined and delicate look. The ears sit high on the side of the head, usually folded back when relaxed, being brought forward with folded tips when alert. Shelties have small almond-shaped eyes, which are usually brown, though can be blue in merle-coated individuals.

As is appropriate for a working breed, Shelties are lean but muscular, with a strong, slightly arched neck and firm back and loins. The chest is well sprung, and the abdomen firm and tucked. The shoulders are well laid back, giving a spring to the forelimb. The hindlimb is muscular, with marked angulation of the stifle and hock, allowing supple and graceful movement when running or jumping. The tail is carried low, with a slight upward curve, but not held above level.

The breed has a long, tough outer coat of guard hairs and a dense undercoat of softer secondary hairs, giving good protection against wet and cold weather. It is well ruffed, giving the appearance of a mane and has marked frills on the chest and tail. The recognised coat colours are:

  • Sable
  • Tricolour
  • Blue Merle
  • Black & White
  • Black & Tan

The genes controlling the merle colour pattern are also tightly associated with those causing deafness and blindness. These defects are recessive, meaning that breeding a blue merle dog to, for example, a sable one is unlikely to cause problems. However, merle–merle matings are likely to produce many deaf and/or blind offspring.

Quite stringent height requirements are specified by the Kennel Club: 37 cm (14.5 in) at the withers for males, and 35.5 cm (14 in) for females, with a range of 2.5 cm taller or shorter considered acceptable. The weight range for males is 8–12 kg (18–26 lb), and for females is 7–11 kg (15–24 lb). Lighter individuals are sometimes seen.

Character & Temperament

Shetland Sheepdogs are highly intelligent, warm and lively dogs that thrive on companionship. Despite being at heart a working breed, Shelties do not do well when deprived of human contact, and need an owner who is as devoted to them as they are to their people. The herding instinct is strong in the breed, and they lithely follow their owners everywhere, while managing to twist and turn around their feet as they would a wandering lamb.

Most Shelties are at least reserved, if not timid, around strangers, and they need coaxing and encouragement in social situations to engage with people other than their own family. They are usually very good with children, though can exhibit the herding dog habit of mouthiness, which must be discouraged so as not to develop into biting. They are also a sensitive breed, and need to be disciplined gently.


Photo of Shetland Sheepdog puppy

Shelties rank amongst the most intelligent of pedigree dogs, and will learn new commands almost instantly. They have a strong desire to please, and praise and words of encouragement are usually all the reinforcement that is required when training.

Learning basic obedience and even tricks will present no challenge, and often little stimulation for these clever canines, and they thrive on having a job to do or a challenge to compete. For these reasons, they excel at flyball and agility, either competitively or purely for fun. These pursuits also provide vigorous exercise and mental satisfaction, and are strongly encouraged for all but the most infirm Shelties.

Another particular area to consider when training is the potential for Shetland Sheepdogs to bark excessively. They do make good guard dogs, as they are constantly alert to unusual scents and sounds, but can become nuisance barkers, especially if left alone for periods of the day. It is therefore a good idea to train Sheltie puppies to “speak” and “cease” on command, as this will give the owner some control over the dog’s vocalisation habits later in life.


Although most Shelties are robust and athletic, there are a number of commonly encountered problems. Some of these can be avoided by careful selection of breeding stock.

Bladder Cancer

This breed, along with West Highland White Terriers and Scottish Terriers, is prone to developing a particular tumour, called a transitional cell carcinoma. Transitional cells line the urinary tract, and so these tumours typically arise in the bladder or urethra, causing blood loss and discomfort or difficulty when urinating.

Collie Eye Anomaly

Also seen in the Rough Collie, this condition is more correctly called choroidal hypoplasia, which describes the impaired development of sensory tissues within the eye. This is a congenital disorder, which is detectable by careful veterinary examination in the first few weeks of life.

Chronic Progressive Hepatitis

This is a liver disease with an insidious onset and long course, in which the liver becomes severely scarred as a result of inflammation. The cause of this inflammatory disease has not yet been ascertained. Early detection and treatment can allow the condition to be managed for a long time in most dogs, but it does usually progress to cause functional liver impairment.


Another condition with an unknown aetiology, dermatomyositis features deep-seated inflammation of the skin and underlying muscle, causing ulcerations, skin infections, and pain. It is quite a rare condition, seen any time from four months of age, and which can easily be misdiagnosed for a number of other more common conditions. Skin biopsy is required to identify the problem, and it responds well in most cases to medication, though treatment will be required for life.

Haemophilia A & B

Shelties are predisposed to these two genetic disorders that result in impaired blood clotting mechanisms. Genetic abnormalities cause insufficient amounts of clotting factors VIII or IX to be produced.

Hip Dysplasia

Though more commonly thought of as a problem of certain large breeds, hip dysplasia is very common in the Shetland Sheepdog, and is a major cause of lameness and osteoarthritis in middle-aged and older dogs. It is very important that breeders carefully screen their breeding dogs by submitting them for hip scoring, and that prospective puppy buyers have access to these scores for their own information.


Dysfunction of the immune system, causing lymphocytic thyroiditis, which leads to thyroid insufficiency, is common in the Sheltie and many other breeds. Hair loss, weight gain, and exercise intolerance are symptoms commonly noticed by owners, though definitive diagnosis relies on laboratory testing.

Ivermectin Hypersensitivity

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug, most often used in lifestock, but which is sometimes administered to dogs, for example, in cases of resistant mange. However, Shelties and other collies often have a defect in a particular gene (called MDR1), which means they can react very badly to this drug.

Neurological signs, including blindness and seizures, are seen soon after beginning treatment in affected dogs. A blood test is available to check for this abnormality, and this should be performed in every Sheltie or other collie being considered for ivermectin treatment.

Optic Nerve Hypoplasia

One potential cause of blindness in the breed, due to underdevelopment of the optic nerve, which leads from the brain to the eye.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Degeneration of the tissues of the retina, beginning in middle age, which progresses to cause loss of sight. Unfortunately, there is no treatment available, and affected animals must not be used for breeding.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

A rare immune-mediated condition in which proteins within cell nuclei are attacked by the body’s defence mechanisms. This can result in a wide range of symptoms, depending on which system is affected most severely, but skin lesions and lameness are often seen.

von Willebrand’s Disease (VWD)

Shetland Sheepdogs are prone to a very severe form of this inherited disease. Affected animals have dysfunctional platelets (white blood cells responsible for blood clotting). While many other breeds live with this condition as a relatively minor problem, most Shelties with VWD do not survive to adulthood.

Exercise and Activity Levels

As discussed above, flyball, obedience, and agility classes are the ideal setting in which to exercise a Shetland Sheepdog. Around an hour of physical activity is required by most on a daily basis to manage weight and energy levels, though most Shelties can handle far more than this. They make ideal hiking or jogging companions.


The breed sheds a considerable amount, a fact that will be readily noticed around the home due to the length of the outer guard hairs. Daily brushing is needed to keep the coat in good condition. Additionally, the hair around the paws and perineum needs frequent washing and clipping, and so most owners will find they need to visit a professional groomer around once every 6–8 weeks.

Shelties are prone to tartar build-up, and should have their teeth brushed on a daily basis with a suitable toothpaste. Unless walking on paved surfaces on a regular basis, many will also need their nails clipped on occasion, perhaps coinciding with their visits to the groomer.

Famous Shetland Sheepdogs

With such striking good looks and the ease with which they can be trained, Shetland Sheepdogs have made their way into several major Hollywood productions:

  • Max was the Shetland Sheepdog character starring in The Little Mermaid, voiced by Frank Welker
  • Lady who was seen in the Grace O’Keefe movie, Kill the Irishman
  • Sam was the dog owned by Mel Gibson’s character, Riggs, in the Lethal Weapon movie series


Shetland crosses can be adorable, with their sweet facial expressions and fine hair coats usually carrying through into their offspring:

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